Update: On Tuesday, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As such, this list, originally compiled on March 1, warranted an update.
It’s not by intent, but the constant turmoil within President Trump’s White House does provide him some benefit: It draws attention away from all the turbulence surrounding his picks to run the major federal departments. Police officers don’t prioritize ticketing cars parked illegally near a hostage situation.
That second-tier turmoil is also important, of course. But even at the Cabinet level, Trump’s administration sees widely varying levels of chaos and criticism.
So we ranked his Cabinet members, from most to least tumultuous.
15. Secretary of health and human services
Originally: 15. The entry below has not been updated.
The HHS secretary is Alex Azar, who assumed that role in January. His tenure has been unremarkable, which might make you wonder why HHS is ranked as the most tumultuous Cabinet position.
And the answer, of course, is that Azar has been there only since January. Before him, the department was led by Tom Price, a former congressman from Georgia who, upon being confirmed, began flying around the country on private jets. He was supposed to be Trump’s lead on efforts to gut and replace the Affordable Care Act, but Price never seemed to play much of a role in that fight throughout 2017. (The fight was unsuccessful, of course.)
By late summer, Price was embroiled in questions about his travel that led to his resignation. Congress passed a repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate in December as part of the tax bill, but Price was gone by then. Price’s main contribution to the fight against Obamacare was to scale back the department’s investments in promoting enrollment to undercut the program.
Before he left, Price also faced questions about stock trades made while he was in Congress and transitioning to the department.
14. Secretary of veterans affairs
Originally: 14. The entry below has not been updated.
David Shulkin was elevated to head VA after Trump was inaugurated. He has had some successes that Trump has celebrated; a focus on veterans and their health was a frequent part of Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
But Shulkin has also been enmeshed in a number of controversies.
In the summer, he traveled to Europe with his wife. The trip was ostensibly work-related, and taxpayers covered the bill for her travel. While there, the pair attended the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
As it turns out, there were a number of problems with that trip. The Wimbledon tickets were an improper gift, VA’s inspector general found, and, while in Europe, a VA staffer was made to act as a “personal travel concierge” for the Shulkins.
Even the rationale for the trip — that Shulkin was receiving an award — was phony. His chief of staff doctored an email from the Danish government to make it look as if Shulkin was getting the honor so the trip could be justified as work-related. (That staffer has since resigned.) The inspector general wrote that its office “cannot determine the value VA gained” from the trip.
It doesn’t end there. Shulkin’s position has in recent weeks seemed tenuous — both because of internal dissension and apparent frustration from Trump.
Two former Trump campaign staffers at VA have reportedly worked around Shulkin to hold meetings related to VA business. The Post reported last month on an internal effort to oust Shulkin. At one point, a news release in which Shulkin defended himself from the inspector general’s report was removed from the department website and replaced with a statement excluding that defense.
13. Secretary of state
The defining characteristic of tumult, of course, is a change in leadership at the top. On Tuesday, Trump tossed out Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in favor of CIA Director Mike Pompeo. But the turmoil doesn’t stop there. Under Tillerson’s brief tenure, he substantially reduced the size of the department while leaving key positions empty.
A number of ambassadorial positions remain unfilled, including in South Korea. (The likely nominee for that role withdrew out of concern about Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea.) Last year, the head of an organization representing the United States’ diplomatic corps warned that the system was being gutted. Last month, the ambassador to Mexico — like others before her — announced plans to leave her position, worried about tension between Mexico and the United States. (The ambassador to Panama resigned in January, citing Trump’s leadership.)
Much of this was by design. Tillerson’s mandate was to reduce the size of the State Department, and he did. This turmoil, in other words, isn’t entirely accidental.
12. Secretary of housing and urban development
Originally: 13. The entry below has not been updated.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson has been in the news in recent days because of plans to redecorate his offices well in excess of an allocated budget. A staffer alleged in a complaint that she was told one couldn’t get a “decent chair” for the $5,000 Carson was allowed to spend; a plan to spend $31,000 on a dining room set was reversed only later.
Beyond that, though, there have been a number of questionable statements and decisions made by Carson during his tenure at HUD.
In July, a senior department staffer raised concerns about Carson’s son having seen personal financial gain from a visit to Baltimore by his father. Carson’s son, the son’s wife and Carson’s wife, Candy, have participated in official HUD business. It was Candy Carson who reportedly worked to get a bigger budget for her husband’s redecoration plans.
Even the announcement that the dining set purchase would be canceled came not from HUD itself, but from Carson’s outside aide, Armstrong Williams.
Beyond all of that, a number of questions have been raised about Carson’s fitness for his job. In May, he suggested that public housing shouldn’t be so nice that it would “make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’ ”
11. Attorney general
Originally: 12. The entry below has not been updated.
Imagine a Cabinet secretary who was forced to recuse himself from a major investigation into a foreign country’s efforts to sway a presidential election and who was repeatedly personally attacked by the president he serves. Whose department often has been disparaged both by the president and the president’s party.
Now imagine that this Cabinet secretary isn’t the one who’s faced the most turmoil.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in an awkward position: His boss clearly wishes he would leave, but Sessions refuses to go. Trump sees the Justice Department’s investigations into the 2016 campaign as a threat, but Sessions can’t and won’t curtail them. Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill disparage the FBI as biased and corrupt, and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as being on an unfair fishing expedition, but Sessions’s hands are tied.
The Justice Department is in a topsy-turvy state, but it seems to be weathering Trump’s attacks fairly well. Sessions’s policy priorities may not be in sync with many Americans’, but he’s pushing forward on them nonetheless, with little interruption.
10. Secretary of education
During the confirmation process for Trump’s Cabinet picks, no one spurred more objections than Betsy DeVos. She was confirmed only after Vice President Pence cast the tie-breaking vote.
As secretary of education, she had largely avoided scandal. Questions arose after the Education Department awarded a debt-collection contract to a business that once had ties to DeVos, but otherwise, most of the objections to her tenure have been political. Energetic — but political.
Until this weekend, when DeVos appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and was unable to answer simple questions from interviewer Lesley Stahl.
The appearance reportedly alarmed members of the West Wing.
Honorable mention: EPA administrator
The position of Environmental Protection Agency administrator is not generally considered one of the traditional Cabinet positions, but technically it is. We’ve therefore added the position to our ranking.
Administrator Scott Pruitt is doing exactly what Trump would have hoped. He’s slashing environmental regulations and policies and dismissing the agency’s focus on combating climate change.
That said, it’s safe to say that the Pruitt-Trump plan for the EPA is not what most EPA employees signed up for. There have been reports of career EPA officials heading for the exits; before Pruitt even began, some employees organized to try to block his appointment.
9. Secretary of the interior
Originally: 10. The entry below has not been updated.
In any other administration, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be on the hot seat. He, too, has faced criticism for taking private-plane flights that were paid for by taxpayers — including back to his home in Montana. Some of that travel wasn’t documented in the way that is required.
After Puerto Rico granted a contract to repair hurricane-damaged electrical systems to a small company in Zinke’s home town, the administration was forced to declare that Zinke had nothing to do with it.
More recently, two scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey resigned after Zinke asked that they share confidential data on oil reserves before it was made public.
“This is simply a matter of them wanting to control information,” one of the scientists said.
8. Secretary of the treasury
Originally: 9. The entry below has not been updated.
If you are familiar with Steven Mnuchin, the odds are good that you are also familiar with his wife, Louise Linton. She has made repeated headlines on her husband’s behalf, none of them helpful.
There was the time she disparaged a commenter on her Instagram post. There was the dollar-bill photo. There were others.
Those were mostly PR headaches, though. Mnuchin has faced more serious questions that have nothing to do with Linton.
On two occasions, the department’s inspector general has investigated Mnuchin’s activity. The first deals with an August trip Mnuchin took on a department jet to Fort Knox in Kentucky — that happened to coincide with the solar eclipse passing overhead nearby. He was eventually cleared of using a government plane solely to eclipse-watch.
Mnuchin was also investigated after pledging analysis of Trump’s tax plan that would show it paying for itself. That report never materialized, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked the IG to investigate whether Mnuchin withheld a report that contradicted his public claims. He was cleared in that investigation, too.
7. Secretary of commerce
Originally: 7. The entry below has not been updated.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has managed to largely stay out of the limelight, as well. Earlier this year, it was reported that Trump was frustrated with deals secured by Ross, but the detail that captured the public imagination was that Ross often fell asleep during meetings.
6. Secretary of energy
Originally: 6. The entry below has not been updated.
Rick Perry came to the Energy Department apparently unclear about what the department did. Shortly after he began work there, Vanity Fair ran an exhaustive article detailing the ways in which Perry seemed unprepared for the central risks that the department is meant to address.
“Since Perry was confirmed,” Michael Lewis wrote in September, “his role has been ceremonial and bizarre.”
That said, Perry’s inexperience and detachment, which seem to rival Carson’s, haven’t led to public screw-ups or controversies beyond political ones. It seems likely that Perry’s experience in politics was probably an asset.
5. Secretary of transportation
Originally: 5. The entry below has not been updated.
Secretary Elaine Chao has similarly avoided much public attention. While Price drew attention for private air travel, Chao was reported to have used government planes on occasion instead of taking commercial flights — a benefit that comes with the Federal Aviation Administration (which she oversees) owning a Cessna.
Those flights, though, were determined to have been appropriate efforts to stick to her official schedule.
4. Secretary of labor
Originally: 4. The entry below has not been updated.
Beyond political opposition, the controversy that’s been the biggest headache for Secretary Alexander Acosta was the decision to add union-busting former president Ronald Reagan to the Labor Hall of Fame.
Even in a normal administration, that doesn’t count as a serious controversy.
3. Secretary of homeland security
Originally: 3. The entry below has not been updated.
There have been two main points of turmoil at the Department of Homeland Security.
One was the appointment of a new secretary after Trump tapped John F. Kelly to serve as White House chief of staff. That transfer went smoothly, save for appointee Kirstjen Nielsen stating during her confirmation hearing that she didn’t know whether Norway was majority white. (This was at the height of Shitholegate.) Tumult — but of the expected kind.
The other way in which DHS has seen new energy has been in Trump (and Kelly and Nielsen) giving Immigration and Customs Enforcement free rein to arrest immigrants in the country illegally. The resulting crackdown has meant a lot of new activity at the department, but activity that Trump (and Kelly and Nielsen) endorse.
Honorable mention: U.N. ambassador
As with the EPA administrator, we’ve carved out space for this Cabinet-level position.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has had one of the most remarkable rises in the Trump administration.
During the campaign, she criticized him openly and forcefully. When rumors broke that she was considering a job with the administration, it seemed hard to believe. But it was true, obviously, and since assuming her position, she has managed to both contradict Trump publicly on occasion but also apparently remain in the president’s good graces. Trump’s not a fan of the United Nations, but he appears to be a fan of Haley.
It’s not related to the turmoil this article is meant to track, but Tuesday was also probably one of the best days of her tenure: Her nemesis Rex Tillerson got shown the door.
2. Secretary of agriculture
Originally: 2. The entry below has not been updated.
Did you know that the secretary of agriculture is Sonny Perdue? It is.
He has made significant headlines precisely once during Trump’s presidency: when he was named as the designated survivor during Trump’s State of the Union address.
1. Secretary of defense
Originally: 1. The entry below has not been updated.
Jim Mattis earns the top position here because he, unlike most of Trump’s Cabinet, seems to have the ability to tamp down melodrama outside his department.
Mattis’s leadership of the Defense Department has not been without turmoil, but he has been effective at managing an agency central to Trump’s ambitions. He is one of the few people in Trump’s orbit who seems to be able to push back on the president in a way that doesn’t lead to resentment.
For example, Mattis is expected to oppose Trump’s spur-of-the-moment Twitter ouster of transgender troops from the military. Mattis handled the controversy effectively: absorbing the heat from Trump and allowing the process of determining the best course of action to finish. Trump’s response to Mattis’s recommendation remains to be seen, but this is the guy who once successfully pushed back on Trump about torture, a policy that had been a frequent component of Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
The bar for Mattis to be the Trump Cabinet member overseeing the least drama was low. But he surpassed it.